Player Analysis: Mikel Oyarzabal – La Real’s Gem by Raphael Adelugba
In the last few years, Spanish football has regained the swagger and confidence they used to possess on the international stage – In recent months Spain have had impressive tournaments, in the summer of the European Championship they got to the Semi-Final but lost to the eventual winners in Italy and an excellent run to the Nations League Final but ultimately lost to World Cup holders France. Gone are the days of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta pulling the strings in midfield and Fernando Torres leading the attack. But the new generation of Spain are something to behold with the likes of Pedri, Yeremi Pino, and Gavi among the conversation with the world’s most gifted young players and Mikel Oyarzabal is no different. The attacking wide man is receiving glowing praise from his current teammate and footballing genius David Silva.
The 24-year-old Spaniard has caught the eye of some of the European giants such as Manchester City, Real Madrid, and Barcelona.
The talismanic figure of La Real’s bright future
At 24 years of age, Mikel Oyarzabal has quickly established himself as one of the most prestigious talents in La Liga. Real Sociedad have been sensational so far this season – sitting 1st in LaLiga (at the time of writing) and at 24 years of age, he’s the captain ( in the absence of Asier Illarramendi) and the leading man of his boyhood club alongside an exciting core of talent at Sociedad with the likes of Alexander Isak, Mikel Merino, and Robin Le Normand.
Born in Eibar, Gipuzkoa in 1997, Oyarzabal joined Real Sociedad’s academy in 2011 – The Zubieta academy is one of the world’s top producers of young football talent. Oyarzabal is only one of the names in the long list of successful footballers from this academy. Xabi Alonso, Asier Illarramendi, Iñigo Martínez, and Antoine Griezmann are the other products of the Real Sociedad youth academy – earning comparisons from a young age to his countryman Pedro, he would spend the next few years apart from a brief loan spell at Eibar in 2013/14, before making his first-team debut under then manager David Moyes on October 25, 2015, coming on as a substitute in a 4-0 win against Levante. “One of the most intelligent footballers I’ve ever seen,” Moyes said after reflecting about his time at the club.
It didn’t take long for Oyarzabal to become a starter, under Eusebio Sacristán, who replaced Moyes, earning a maiden call-up to the Spain national team at 19 years of age alongside balancing professional football with his studies in a degree in Business Administration and Management at the University of Deusto. Midway through the 2017/18 season, Sacristán was sacked after a 2-1 loss to Getafe; in his place, Imanol Alguacil was promoted from the reserve team. Under Alguacil, Oyarzabal has developed his game to another level and it’s shown in the last few years especially this season starting the season exceptionally well with 6 goals and 1 assist in 8 LaLiga but after picking up a muscle injury he has missed the last month and half of action.
Naturally a left-winger, Oyarzabal also holds the special attributes to play across the three behind the striker. He plays on the left-wing of Alguacil’s 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation, typically playing alongside Alexander Isak and Januzaj or Portu who rotate in the RW position in the attack.
In the modern game of inside forwards and inverted wingers, where right-footed players like to cut in from the left-wing to shoot at goal and vice versa, Oyarzabal is of the more classical, traditional set of left-footed wingers on the left-side; playing one-twos of teammates, first time crosses, passing angles, etc. A player who performs most of their work centrally, providing him with the license to roam between the opposition defense and midfield. With Aihen Muñoz having the responsibility to be an attacking left-back, Oyarzabal tends to shift inside into the left-half channel, affecting the game as an additional attacking midfielder at times, very similar to how Jadon Sancho operated on the right during his time at Dortmund and brief time at Manchester United.
Last season, Oyarzabal hit double figures in G/A (13 goals, 10 assists) from LaLiga games, and as stated this season has been no different in terms of productivity with 6 goals and 1 assist in 8 LaLiga games. Statistically, Oyarzabal ranks in the top percentiles for virtually every final third attacking metric, showing himself to be a very refined and effective player in the final third as seen below.
For a player who isn’t blessed with blistering pace, one of Oyarzabal’s strongest assets and probably his most underrated quality – is his exceptional off-the-ball movement. He provides dangerous runs to create opportunities for himself and also makes space for his teammates by drawing defenders from their natural positions – tends to unlock defenses open.
As a left-footed left-winger, Oyarzabal starting position is usually on the touchline when Real Sociedad have possession in their half, he will frequently move into the left half-space, encouraging the left-back Aihen Muñoz to attack the left flank.
This is a prevalent tactic that Sociedad try to employ very regularly, and it gives them another dynamic to their possession-oriented side, as Oyarzabal’s off-the-ball runs make them threatening indirect play and counter-attacking play.
In this example against Getafe, Gorosabel receives the ball on the right channel and spots the run of Oyarzabal who is unmarked as he burst into the box.
The Getafe players are too slow to react as the ball is whipped in right in front of the six-yard and a combination of a well-timed run by Oyarzabal.
And Oyarzabal timed his run well to connect with the wonderful cross and head it in.
In the below example from last season, Monaco are caught ball watching. Adnan Januzaj can pick up the loose ball in midfield. Oyarzabal begins his run from out to in behind the Monaco defense.
Januzaj’s through ball finds him through on goal against the keeper but the pass is too heavy and the keeper comes out to clear it but the intention of the run is evident and shows Oyarzabal can be a direct threat even with his lack of pace.
Great vision; Poor execution
An underrated trait of Mikel Oyarzabal is possibly his creativeness. Oyarzabal is one of Real Sociedad’s main creative hubs alongside Adnan Januzaj and David Silva, majority of Sociedad’s attacking move within the final third is constructed around the Spaniard. The maverick constantly looks to create for his teammates ahead of him. He’s able to drop deep and progress the ball and look for runs before releasing the pass.
Amongst attacking midfielders and wingers in the league this season, he is one of the most productive final third passers with 2.14 key passes per 90 more than other world-class attacking midfielders like Leroy Sané (1.95) and Phil Foden (1.90).
In this image, we see the positional play of both Oyarzabal and David Silva. Oyarzabal drives towards the Elche box and Silva is making a run that Oyarzabal can pass to and the Spaniard spots the run by his fellow countrymen.
But it’s a poor execution of the pass from Oyarzabal as he tries to play it through a tight angle and it is eventually cut out by the Elche defender.
Another example of Oyarzabal’s great vision but poor execution is in the image above. Januzaj is making a run towards the back post and is waiting for a cross to tap it in the open net. Oyarzabal sees the runs and tries to chip it towards Januzaj.
The execution of the lofted pass is poor and goes behind Januzaj and eventually ending the threat of the attack.
The sky’s the limit
Mikel Oyarzabal is a player whose finding his level, undoubtedly one of the best players in Spanish football. His consistent performances throughout his time at Sociedad have earned him the respect of admirers all over Europe. And there’s a growing feeling of the drive and ambition in the young Spanish forward, to test himself at the world’s elite clubs.
Already on course for his best goalscoring season and there are no limits on how good the player can potentially be.